November 10, 2019
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Trans people deserve job protection

Susan Walsh | AP
Susan Walsh | AP
Aimee Stephens, seated center, and her wife Donna Stephens, in pink, listen during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 8, 2019. Aimee Stephens lost her job when she told Thomas Rost, owner of the Detroit-area R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, that she had struggled with gender identity issues almost her whole life. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier in the day on her case. Laverne Cox, the award-winning transgender actress and longtime trans rights activist, listens at left.

“I’m really sorry,” the hiring manager told me. “You’re very qualified, but you’re not a good fit for our cafe.”

This rejection, by a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, was the seventh in a string of rejections I received from coffee and food service jobs during a one-and-a-half week period in June 2016.

I was devastated, and furious.

I have had years of experience in customer service. I’d worked for Starbucks for two years in several roles, and was at one point recognized as “Partner of the Quarter.” I had my Coffee Master certification and coveted black apron. I could sip a cup of coffee and tell you where the beans came from.

But I am a trans woman. I’m six-and-a-half feet tall (seven feet in heels) and I inherited my dad’s linebacker shoulders. I pair my eyeliner with a caramel-smooth baritone that I don’t care to soften.

I wasn’t hired because I am trans. And in more than half the country — 29 states, in fact — that’s perfectly legal.

There is a precedent in federal courts that discrimination “on the basis of sex,” prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, includes discrimination against LGBTQ people. This makes sense, because someone fired for being a lesbian is being punished for not conforming to sex-based stereotypes that women are straight. And a trans woman fired because she lives her life as a woman is being punished for not accepting the gender coercively assigned to her at birth.

Unfortunately, in recent years, this legal precedent has been undercut by right-wing circuit courts. They argue, along with the Trump administration, that “unfavorable treatment of a gay or lesbian employee … is not the consequence of that individual’s sex,” but “a different trait — sexual orientation — that Title VII does not protect.”

They extend this argument to trans people, ignoring that sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are all judged on sex-based stereotypes.

This dispute has come to a head in a case now before the Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard on Oct. 7 in the case of Aimee Stephens, a Michigan woman who was fired when she came out as trans to her employer. The question at hand: Does discrimination “on the basis of sex” include discrimination against LGBTQ persons?

More pointedly: Does federal law allow discrimination against LGBTQ people?

For trans people, myself included, these questions aren’t abstractions. They determine whether daily life is livable.

Research shows that most employers exhibit significant bias against trans people — even when they are more qualified, and even in jurisdictions that do have explicit legal protections.

According to the National Center for Trans Equality, trans people experience unemployment at three times the rate of the general population. And 30 percent of trans people polled reported discrimination at work during the past year.

Starkly, trans people live in poverty at more than double the national rate — and 30 percent of us have been homeless.

These difficulties persist even under the putative protection of Title VII. While proposed legislation like the Equality Act could make these implicit protections explicit in federal law, Senate Republicans refuse to move forward on federal equality — despite the overwhelming support of 71 percent of Americans.

We need comprehensive protections for trans people so we can safely live and work anywhere in the country. If the Supreme Court rolls back Title VII protections, it will set trans equality back by decades.

We are not asking for much. Trans people just want a fair chance at a job. We want a safe place to live without worrying whether we might be evicted for simply existing.

All we want is a fighting chance.

Robin Savannah Carver is a development associate at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

 



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